by Sam Hutchins
One of the earlier things Kar Wai had said to me was that in order to get someplace it’s best to go in the opposite direction. Turns out this was true not only for the story he was telling, but in the story of his life as well. In order to scout Memphis we flew to Chicago. I’m not sure if that was the easiest place to meet Darius, who was flying in from Paris, or if there was another reason. Kar Wai seemed very fond of Chinatown in Chicago, maybe that was part of the attraction? Whatever his reason, I had long ago stopped trying to figure him out. He moved like a force of nature and all I could do was try to keep up.
Merely trying to keep up was a new way of doing the job for me. In my work you need to stay a step ahead of the director. For instance, once we were in the hotel I pored over my maps, reacquainting myself with the immediate area. I determined the best route from the hotel to the highway, and what was the best route to Memphis. Also, the best way to get to any of the locations we had liked on our last trip there. I was mentally rehearsing the various possibilities when we met in the morning, and as usual I was surprised.
“Let’s go to Chinatown. There is a good place for breakfast there.”
Very well, it was a trip to the Congee Palace for us. Of course while we were driving I got a call from Darius, who was in a cab at the airport. He insisted I give his driver, a Chicago cabbie, directions from the airport to Chinatown. Needless to say the cabbie knew the route better than I did but spending a few moments on the phone with him at least calmed Darius down. Both he and his four suitcases made it to the restaurant intact, and we all sat over bowls of Congee and caught up with each other.
If you’ve never had congee, by the way, good for you. If you’ve seen The Matrix, there is a scene where the crew sits around the table eating bowls of wet slop that vaguely resembles mucus. That’s pretty much what congee is. Unlike in The Matrix, however, in real life it is spiced up with whatever manner of offal the chef feels like tossing in that morning. I was glad to be back out scouting with the guys but had not missed some of these meals. Breakfast finished, we hit the medicinal store for a fresh supply of herbs and teas before heading south. I lucked out and found the right highway without too much confusion and we were off.
We often meandered on local roads, taking the scenic route. Asking around, there seemed to be no interest in seeing anything on the way to Memphis, so I took the highway. It was already late morning so it looked like it was going to be a long haul to make Memphis before the middle of the night. I bore down and drove fast, and was just starting to get back in the groove when Kar Wai snapped out of his usual reverie and pointed out the window.
“Let’s go there.”
As usual, I had to pull a pretty ugly move to get to where he wanted to be. Screeching across three lanes and off the exit ramp, I saw what he was interested in.
“Kar Wai, I think that’s a prison.”
“Oh. Can we go in?”
“Sure, we just need to stick up a gas station.”
Alas, it seems humor is the first thing that gets lost in translation. After an interminably long blank stare I clarified.
“I doubt we can without having made prior arrangements.”
“Oh. We should keep going then.”
Of course I was already off the highway and outside the prison walls. We appeared to be somewhere in Joliet, Illinois. I started meandering around, trying to find our way back onto the highway, when something else caught his eye.
“Let’s go there.”
I couldn’t believe it. He had us stop in at a faux-old drive-in restaurant. One of those places meant to evoke the whole American Graffiti/Happy Days carhop experiences. However this place was done about as badly as you could imagine. Horrible posters of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe everywhere, it was possibly the least authentic location in America. Worse, the walls were all gleaming white and basically impossible to shoot decently. Looking around quickly I assumed he would come to his senses. No such luck.
“Can we take pictures?”
“Let me ask.”
Of course the place was packed, and I had to wait in line for a while before getting to a small window I had to yell through to be heard. The teenage countergirl looked absolutely perplexed at my spiel, and only after much talking, brandishing of business cards and even a little pantomime did she deign to go get the manager. The manager wanted to know exactly what date we wanted to film there and for how long before allowing us to take scouting photos. Exasperated by trying to explain it to her I eventually gave in and simply made up an imaginary date. I then waited for her to amble back to her office to check her calendar.
“Sorry, hun, but June 14th is no good. That’s when we have a big rally of all the antique cars here. We’d be much too busy to let you have the place.”
“Okay, then, how about June 15th. That could work for us also.”
Another slow amble back to her office. This time she had good news.
“The 15th is good. So go ahead and take your pictures if you want. Maybe you could put some of the cars in your movie.”
“Thank you very much, ma’am. We’ll consider it.”
“No problem. But remember, you can’t be here on the 14th.”
Considering that I had no intention of ever setting foot in the place again in my life, I assented. Easily twenty minutes had passed by the time I got back to the guys and gave them the okay to shoot the place. Darius looked up from the magazine he was reading, scratched his head and looked around.
“I don’t think we should bother. This place won’t photograph well. The walls are all white.”
Ugh. It turned out that getting on the highway again was complicated, so we drove down the old Route 66 for a while. We started passing a few old tourist traps, giant plastic statues and the like. They were real Americana, unlike the faux-50’s drive in we had just left. I kept waiting for Kar Wai to react to one of them, but nothing. The more time I spent with the man the less I understood him.
STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF THE SCOUTING LIFE.
Sam Hutchins has been working in film production for twenty years. He started as overnight security on the set of “Working Girl” while attending film school at NYU. Since 1995 he has been a location manager for some of the top names in the business. He’ll be blogging from a unique insider’s perspective on the filmmaking process, as well as speaking to his colleagues in the production community to share their experiences with you.